Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Traveler

Previously, I described the array of expatriate species that populate Phnom Penh (here: The Transient Life).  Another key element to the foreigners traipsing through my current country though is the range of travelers who pass through Cambodia.  They too can be divided, generally, into 5 categories.

1. The banana pancaker:  The banana pancaker is so named because of their undying love of banana pancakes, the little backpacker friendly snacks sold at nearly every Khmer restaurant.  Banana pancakers aren't specific to Cambodia; in fact, they can be found wandering  most Southeast and South Asian countries.  They are easy to identify from a distance:  om-covered pants with a patchwork crotch sagging at the knee-level, tattoos written in foreign languages, dreadlocks, and of course, the oversized backpacks filled with various nonsensical items picked up along the way.  The pancakers are usually keen to provide commentary on their spiritual adventures, or your lack of spirituality, and they are often on indulgent multi-country trips.  The duration of the average pancaker trip is about a month, but they're happy to inform you that they know and understand Cambodia better than you, a mere mortal, who has resided here for a year.  They enjoy a budget trip and are eager to eat unclear, exhaust-laden foods from a street vendor for authenticity's sake.
2. The pseudo pancaker:  The pseudo pancaker may be difficult to differentiate from its more 'authentic' counterpart.  While they will dress the same as the standard banana pancaker, the pseudo pancaker is financed with mom and dad's cash.  Often from wealthy families, the pseudo pancaker reaches Cambodia during a gap year or gap summer to 'discover themselves'.  They have less aggressive tattoos and no dreadlocks, and they're much more likely to splurge on bad pizza because, well, it's not actually their money.  Pseudo pancakers usually enjoy longer trips with periodic stops to volunteer at a sketchy orphanage or work with rescued elephants or some other short-term volunteer experience that will look nice on a resume as they attempt to reintegrate into the Western business world.
3. The granola:  Also named for their food of choice, granolas almost exclusively travel in married pairs.  Granolas will be found wearing olive colored cargo pants, their pockets filled with tiny bananas and almonds.  They're easiest to identify at temples or other formal establishments because they take so long to unlace their hiking boots to meet the barefoot requirements of Buddhist culture.  Granolas are less likely to reach out to other travelers, and they hang on to their weathered blue copy of the Lonely Planet guide for dear life.  Granolas are more likely to spend more time in Cambodia relative to its Southeast Asian neighbors, but they often have a specific agenda, detailed schedule, and fixed itinerary.  Granolas are eager to pay the extra $3 for a quality guide to explain the significance of architectural nuances, the history of a neighborhood, and the unexpected culinary delights.  Granolas feel strongly about eating Khmer food exclusively, but they prefer clean, air conditioned restaurants to shady food stalls.
4. The aristocrat: The wealthiest travelers are among the rarest in Phnom Penh, simply because they arrange to fly in and out of Siem Reap, spend a day or two at the Angkor temples, and head toward Bangkok or Singapore or Hanoi.  This group of travelers bands together in the 5 star hotels, splurges on a daily $15 hour-long full body massage, and visits the hokey all-you-can-eat buffets slash dance performances.  They leave Cambodia convinced they have experienced the country although they haven't left the Siem Reap microcosm.  Certainly, the aristocrats are likely to catch an Apsara dance show, briefly wander through the Old Market, and enjoy the short, kitschy elephant ride between Angkor temples.
5. The Japanese tourist:  Of course, every major tourist destination is visited by a massive charter bus filled to the brim with eager, middle-aged Japanese tourists.  They spill from the bus onto Angkor grounds and immediately open their pink and yellow and red sun umbrellas.  Like the aristocrat, the Japanese tourist groups are unlikely to visit the Cambodia that exists beyond Siem Reap.  They also tend to search out East Asian restaurants and lavish buffets, take an excessive number of photos featuring the victory V, and purchase cheesy souvenirs such as wooden Angkor Wat statues or monkey figurines made from coconuts.  However, this group does not have the overt disdain for fellow travelers that some other wandering categories sometimes exhibit.

Have you been to Cambodia?  Which group are you?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Intercultural Communication

When I lived in South Carolina, I attended the elementary and middle schools that catered to the district's deaf students.  While most of our classes were segregated, we did unite for school spirit events, gym class, and a few other electives.  Part of the standard curriculum for all students was basic sign language to foster friendship and communication.  Somehow, despite this massive communication barrier, I became friends with several deaf students and found myself spending recess running around the playground with my hard-of-hearing cohorts.  We laughed in the same language.  Through the years, I have forgotten most of the sign language I learned.  However, I remember basic phrases such as "Hello, my name is..." and "Santa Claus is coming to town" and even the pledge of allegiance.

Today, I made a startling discovery.  On my way to my top floor apartment, I stopped to say hello to my neighbor, my arms full of books and fresh pineapple.  I cooed briefly over her 4 month old son.  My neighbor's sister stared, smiling, but didn't say a word.  After a few moments of pleasantries, my neighbor turned to her sister and motioned with her hands, translating my broken Khmer into sign language.  The girl smiled and responded, her nimble fingertips artfully gliding through the air in front of her.  She is deaf. 

Immediately, I placed my books onto the ground and signed "hello" to her.  "How are you?" I asked.  A moment of shock, and she responded.  We exchanged names.  She knew the same signs as me, the same alphabet, the same gestures.  Despite having learned the language on two different continents, nearly 9,000 miles apart, we suddenly spoke the same language.  How exceptional!  To find that my limited sign language allowed me to communicate with her with the same level of fluency as my limited Khmer allows me to communicate with her older sister.  In fact, this is even more extraordinary - the language used to communicate with deaf American children is the SAME as the language used to communicate with deaf Cambodian children.  The magnitude of this fact astounds me, even now.  She asked me to return, to be her friend.  She promised to teach me more.

What a surprising and beautiful world.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Transient Life

The characters within the Phnom Penh expat community can generally be divided into 5 categories, all of whom are filled with some nomadic, transient tendencies. Although this can be frustrating for a self-proclaimed introvert who is discouraged by the continual recycling of friendships and rebuilding of relationships, I've tried to adapt to the transitory lifestyle of an expat.  Mostly, I've tried to appreciate the wild nature of the people around me:

1. The intern.  The intern is generally a Master's student studying International Relations at an obscure northern European university or a law student desperate to engage in human rights law.  The intern arrives, eager and idealistic, convinced that they will Change the World in 4 months or less.  Unpaid, they are generally funded by mom and dad, and therefore willing to splurge for a balcony, splurge for one extra mango smoothie, and splurge on that weekend at Koh Rong.  The intern is the most transient of them all and the least likely to be able - ABLE - to make a real commitment.  This doesn't mean all interns are bad; to the contrary, the intern typically has a robust energy, optimistic spirit, and slightly wacky sense of humor that makes them fun to engage with (when they can agree to show up somewhere, sometime).
2. The business professional.  The businessman (or woman, though we all know the prevailing statistics) usually arrives with a young family in tow or on the way.  The businessman is here for a bit longer, though rarely longer than 2.5 to 3 years.  Young, innovative, and freshly branded with an MBA from a second tier business school, the businessman is eager to open the market and spread capitalistic values, enjoy the luxurious lifestyle provided in Cambodia by a simple income, and create a name for themselves.  Generally more conservative on social values, the businessman is shrewd and clever and always willing to enjoy a $5 cocktail on the Riverside.
3. The NGO worker.  NGO workers tend to range significantly in age with the majority belonging to the mid-20s to late-40s group.  The NGO worker is less idealistic than expected having quickly been exposed to the dangers of corruption and censorship, the threat of competition among rival NGOs, and the unpredictability of development.  The NGO worker lives as comfortable a lifestyle as the businessman, though they are also armed with a black Lexus SUV and live-in nanny.
4. The missionary.  The missionary is an eager and somewhat misguided do-gooder, usually fresh from the American midwest or somewhere in Australia.  The missionary often arrives with a litter of children tailing along behind them and a handful of Bibles to gift to unwitting souls.  Certainly, the missionary will attempt to combine religious education with NGO-type philanthropy.  The missionary, however, will not have a sense of humor and will not be able to debate religion objectively or philosophically.  The missionary will stay here the longest however, so as to adopt enough Khmer to effectively translate the Bible and establish a thriving Baptist community.
5. The eternal nomad.  The eternal nomad is usually at least 60 years old.  Sporting a ragged beard, disheveled guitar, and faint scent of marijuana, the eternal nomad is filled with stories of harrowing escapes in Mauritania and participation in riots in Uzbekistan and tea with a guru in the Himalayas.  The eternal nomad is always eager to talk and share their experiences, though their minds wander constantly in pursuit of the memory of their travels.  The nomad is unpredictable and may decide to reside in Cambodia for the remainder of their retirement.  More often than not, however, the nomad will spontaneously decide that Laos or India or Namibia is calling his name.

Who am I missing?  (Next issue: the travelers who pass through Cambodia.)

Thursday, July 19, 2012


I'm consistently overwhelmed with a sense of urgent gratitude.  My experience in Cambodia has certainly oscillated over the last year, but I cannot help but be thankful for the many brilliant opportunities I've stumbled upon since my exhausted arrival last August.  A rainbow of orchids, rambutan smoothies, drenched downpours, lazy sunsets, crystal sea, abounding motos, satisfying work, fried rice galore.  The many many wonderful and intriguing people I've met, the personal growth I've seen unfold, the fierce independence I've enjoyed, the glorious uncertainty of a life abroad.  Trips and tours, water buffalo, cool evenings on the back of a motorcycle.  Extensive, detailed discussions with monks.  Tea with a prince.  Tea with a mango vendor.

It's exhausting and thrilling.  Every day is a day for thanks giving.  What a beautiful little dance we call life.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Ode to the Cambodian Chicken

The chickens in Cambodia are a bleak and disheartened bunch.  Occasionally, I'll catch a ruffled hen wandering down my street in Phnom Penh, the capital city.  I'm more likely though to notice a gang of graying birds scratching hopelessly through the dust on an unpaved countryside lane, coughing as they listlessly stumble through their home village.  The chickens in Cambodia are heart-wrenching, balding as they lose tufts and tufts of feathers from heat and malnutrition.  They cock their heads to the side and look at me, their beady eyes glaring as if I should take matters into my own hands and provide them with a nutritious snack and perhaps also a cold beverage.  Their necks are red and raw, but they continue to rake the ground for a tasty morsel.  I admire the courage and conviction of these chickens, their downtrodden yet somehow sustained campaign for existence.

A Khmer friend told me that this particular group of chickens was only suffering from the awkward adolescent stage that plagues us all at some point.  Wider travels suggest to me that either every Cambodian chicken is a gangly teenager or they collectively suffer from the harsh conditions of eternal humidity.

On a visit to Kampong Chhnang province, my host insisted that we feast on her chicken specialty.  That evening, dinner was delayed as the birds raced across the yard.  Despite their underweight and gawky appearance, they remained feisty and fast.  Eventually, we ate, and I realized the true meaning of free range.  Not only are the chickens in Cambodia ugly and beleaguered, but they're tough, chewy, and insipid.  I respect the chickens only more for this; they've found a way to escape, in large part, the vicious cleaver that hangs along the kitchen wall.  Ode to the Cambodian chicken, who has fought against weather and neglect, against distasteful physicality and seasonings galore.  Ode to the Cambodian chicken who survives, who fights against its oppressors even as it is consumed.  Ode to the Cambodian chicken, who's plucky courage deserves to be admired.

Most people prefer pork anyway.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


I still can't decide how I feel about the Riverside, the touristy backpacker neighborhood of brilliant rooftop bars with exquisite views overlooking the Mekong and crowded fast food joints featuring untraditional pizzas littered with marijuana flakes. The banana pancakers abound, their colorful sagging pants plastered with tacky Om symbols while their dreadlocks absorb the sweat from the backs of their necks. They carry oversized backpacks, filled to the brim with more material nonsense than most Cambodians own entirely, and they sneeringly offer to Educate you on Spirituality and Local Culture. The young twenty something expats arrive in droves, eager to celebrate a work of saving the world through one NGO or another with a cold, happy hour Anchor beer and a plate of nachos. And there are those who come to reminisce, who are reminded of the Cambodia of yesteryear they once visited a decade earlier.

But then, in contrast to the helter skelter foreign population, there are the clans of young Cambodian classmates, sitting crosslegged in small circles along the riverside walkway, sharing rice cakes and drinking from a personal beer supply while catching up on the latest hallway gossip. And three dozen Khmer women dance in perfect sequence in full, enthusiastic participation of the nightly jazzercise class, cooled by a gentle breeze wafting from the river's blue waters. They wear matching headbands and brightly colored socks. The palm trees behind them dance in tandem, swaying along to the beat of the peppy music as they bathe in the Royal Palace's golden glow.

The Riverside is gaudy and eager, with neon signs, crowded pubs, and flashy five-inch high heels, yet it echos each whisper of wind with a giggle. It's designed for casual strolling, one lazy step after another along a moto-free sidewalk, and it embodies the young spirit that has captured Cambodia, vivid, lively, impatient. The steady, booming bass from a nighclub pounds into the night, a heartbeat by which the neighborhood paces itself. Boom, boom, boom, it says, pumping energy into the city, keeping time with the dance of tuk tuks as they collect tired partygoers, ready to collapse into their beds.

Sometimes, I wonder if the poetry graffitied by the wind across the streets was written just for me.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Today marks one month since I returned to Phnom Penh. One month settling into a new apartment, my first full-fledged job, the rising heat of Southeast Asia. One month of fried rice and iced coffee and bicycle rides as my flimsy metal basket threatens to crash to the ground. One month more of a long distance relationship, of dependence on Skype, of exaggerated sign language as I desperately work to improve my Khmer.

The time has flown and crawled, and I am happy and sad. I revel at my fierce independence, purchasing kilos of fruit from the nearby Khmer market, the only white face in a pajama-clad crowd of women balancing half naked babies from their hips, carrying a dozen fresh eggs in their arms. I despair at my utter loneliness as I face a country alone, empty, void of the friends who carried me through my previous semester (all of whom had to return to their countries of origin to complete Master's programs or otherwise get on with their lives). I love the urban cry of roosters at 10 in the morning just blocks from my apartment; I loathe the urban cry of roosters at 3 in the morning just blocks from my apartment. I enjoy time alone, wandering through my thoughts with the careful aimlessness of undisturbed time. I fear time alone, left to my thoughts which consume me, frighten me, push me.

I read every day, I grow every day. I ride my bicycle calmly and fearfully through the streets, enjoying the sunny breeze of early spring and avoiding the motos as they race toward me in the wrong lane. I eat so many mangoes I fear stomachache, but all I really notice is the heavenly fragrance as juice rolls down my chin into the sink. I eat mangoes as if they're peaches in South Carolina in July, ripe, succulent, rich, creamy.

I write. I write all the time. I'm kept awake at night by my thoughts, urging me to sit with my paper, to reach for my pen, to scramble, to draw, to allow the ideas to stream forth like a gushing waterfall in Yosemite in June as the northern glaciers melt, tumbling from my fingers in an eager rush to become sensical and readable.

I am engulfed by the open camaraderie of my office department, eager to include me, yet suffering from an unmistakable divide of language and cultural barrier. I am one of them; I am different. I wear the uniform, but something is always wrong. Skirt is gray not black, belt is colorful, shirt is crisply tucked in.

I don't know if I am happy or sad, but I am learning. I am growing, undeniably, each day as I absorb one more Khmer vocabulary word, one more statistical analysis process, one more piece of software. One more route through the city, one more curry dish from my favorite Indian restaurant, one more Cambodianism. Wherever you go, there you are, they tell me. I am here, here I am.